Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz, one of the most progressive members of Congress, offered a telling look into the prevailing mood on Capitol Hill these days. “We’re going to need a temporary alliance of progressives and conservatives to save the country, and then we can get back to fighting over the size and scope of government,” he told the Washington Post’s Paul Kane.
In theory, this sounds glaringly obvious. In reality, the opportunity for strategic compromise is a pipe dream. President Trump’s inability to immediately condemn white nationalism in the wake of ugly neo-Nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville is an illustration of crippled leadership at the White House. But instead of working to woo the many disaffected Americans disillusioned with Trump, Democrats have gone in the opposite direction. They’ve veered leftward, demanded ideological litmus tests from leaders, and continued to criticize Republicans who have spoken out against Trump (in Sen. Jeff Flake’s case, at great political risk).
In the past week alone, Trump has seen his job approval rating fall to a new low (in the Gallup daily tracking survey), but he remains untouchable within the Republican party thanks to widespread support. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Warren is calling for a centrist-free party in a seminal Netroots Nation speech, while allies of Bernie Sanders are busy targeting heretics from within.
Given this ideological stalemate, the political environment couldn’t be more conducive for a viable third-party presidential bid. If a wounded Trump runs for reelection and Democrats nominate a candidate out of the mainstream, there will be a gaping political opportunity eager to be exploited. Typically, there’s little market for an establishment-friendly alternative to the two major parties, who usually nominate candidates acceptable to elite leaders. The next presidential election, however, could feature two polarizing populists, with the establishment entirely locked out. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum.
The challenge a third-party candidate faces in this type of environment is finding someone who can win over elements in both the Republican and Democratic parties. Such a coalition would need to bind together anti-Trump Republicans, some Republican voters who reluctantly support Trump as a bulwark against liberal overreach, and moderate Democrats concerned about their party’s own leftward drift.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who rarely misses an opportunity to slam his own party, already appears to be preparing for such a candidacy. He’s made new Democratic friends with his opposition to repealing Obamacare and persistent criticism of Trump. He’s been touting the type of compassionate conservatism that George W. Bush championed, but that has fallen out of vogue among Republicans in recent years. His recent book, Two Paths: America Divided or United, reads like a playbook of someone considering a future presidential run.
Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval would be another intriguing third-party possibility who regularly won Democratic voters in his two gubernatorial campaigns, played a key role in scuttling GOP efforts on repealing Obamacare, and could make history running to be the first Hispanic president.
There aren’t as many Democrats who’d abandon their party for a long-shot bid, but one possibility stands out. Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton, a decorated Iraq war veteran, sounds like he’s thinking about a presidential campaign. He first won office by challenging the Democratic Party’s favored candidate in a primary, and has stirred intraparty controversy for publicly slamming House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. The ambitious congressman has the biography to win over fans on both sides of the aisle, even though he’s been a reliably Democratic vote. There’s also a long list of socially-progressive, fiscally-pragmatic business leaders – from Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban to Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz – who could fit the bill, as well.
Historically, the main obstacle for third-party candidates is raising enough money to get their message out. It’s why wealthy billionaires like Mike Bloomberg are usually the most frequently mentioned independent candidates. But in the liberalized campaign finance system, post Citizens United, it’s a lot easier for a small number of wealthy donors to finance a third-party run. And it’s the political donor class that could feel the most disenfranchised in a race featuring Trump and a socialist-minded Democrat.
The biggest obstacle for any independent candidacy is the electoral college. It’s a lot easier to see an outside candidate cobbling together a narrow plurality of the popular vote than seeing a third-party candidate win 270 electoral votes. There are 269 electoral votes in states that are either safely Republican or safely Democratic, according to the Cook Political Report’s electoral college ratings, making it very difficult to pull together a majority.
But as last year’s election demonstrated, stranger things have happened. A charismatic contender could break through against two historically weak major party nominees, taking a page from the Macron playbook in France. If Trump’s problems worsen, a desperate Republican party could align with a third-party candidate in a fusion ticket. These options aren’t likely, but anything is possible in these topsy-turvy political times.